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Modern Romance

Modern Romance(1981)

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Anyone who knows Albert Brooks solely from recent undernourished comedies such as The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World doesn't know what the writer-director-actor is (or certainly was) capable of. His recent movies are mere shadows of his first wave of movie comedies, including 1981's Modern Romance, made between his other early standouts, Real Life and Lost in America (Monica Johnson co-wrote all three).

New to DVD, Modern Romance is a romantic comedy, but in a way it's also an anti-romantic comedy. Few comedies delve into the deep pit of romantic obsession and emotional turmoil as Modern Romance does, or offer a hero as amusingly desperate. He's Robert Cole (Brooks), who opens the movie by breaking up with longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold). "You've never heard of a no-win situation?" he asks her when speaking of their relationship. "Vietnam. This." Mary storms away, ordering Robert to not call him, the strong implication being he's dumped her and then come crawling back before.

Robert's often pathetic attempts to move on with his life comprise the bulk of the movie and its laughs. He tries to immerse himself in work (he's a film editor cutting a cheesy George Kennedy sci-fi movie at American International) but he's too pre-occupied with the break-up, his mood swings teetering from optimism to depression. So he takes the Quaaludes assistant editor Jay (a typically priceless Bruno Kirby) gives him, and goes home. Some of the best moments in Modern Romance simply follow Robert around his house, trying to feel good: putting on a record, talking to his pet bird, phoning Jay, fingering through his Rolodex ("Look at all my friends," he says to the bird), calling up a woman in his Rolodex that he doesn't even remember and making a date for the following evening.

Robert's amusing quest for contentment continues the following day, as he decides to start working out and heads to a health food store and then a sporting goods store, where he's pushed into buying expensive gear by the salesman (comedy vet Bob Einstein, Brooks' real-life brother and the future Super Dave Osborne). His attempts to forget Mary don't work, partially because of the pop songs he encounters on the car radio during his travels: Nazareth's schlocky cover of "Love Hurts," The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," The Association's "Along Came Mary." The unhelpful assault of pop songs reaches its apex that night when Robert picks up his date and Brooks holds on a two-shot through the windshield of the couple driving off, as the long intro of Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life" builds up. As the lyrics begin ("She's out of my life/And I don't know whether to laugh or cry"), Robert circles the block, drops off the woman and the world's quickest date is over.

As with the shot through the windshield, in much of the action Brooks' direction is appealingly uncomplicated. He lets the comedy unfold from the situations, he doesn't gimmick them up. Following the non-date, Robert buys a pile of make-up gifts to leave on Mary's doorstep and the couple soon gets back together, but not after an obsessive night of waiting for her to phone that's so painful Robert has to simply leave his house. His night of roaming is a nicely sad little interlude, include an effective moment at a payphone where Robert waits, while an older man phones an ex, obsessively inquiring what she's up to with an aching blend of affection and aggression. It's a peek at a potential older Robert.

Of course, after the make-up sex, Robert and Mary's reconciliation doesn't go so smoothly. While looking for a razor at her house, he stumbles upon a phone bill with two very long calls to someone in New York City on them, and you know at some point he's going to quiz Mary about them. But Modern Romance isn't about things going smoothly. It's about the unintentionally amusing drudgery in life. To that end, in addition to the reconciliation, the second half of the movie also gives us more scenes concerning the movie Robert is editing, with a director (James L. Brooks, the writer-director) almost as neurotic as Robert. There's a hilarious sequence in which, after the director cajoles Robert and Jay into enhancing the sound of one shot of the sci-fi movie, the two go to a sound studio and deal with union sound engineers (the main one played by Albert Henderson of TV's Car 54, Where Are You?) who are blissfully disinterested in anything the two are trying to accomplish.

Brooks continues to play characters as neurotic and intentionally irritating as those he did in early movies like Modern Romance. His movies haven't been as funny recently because he no longer gives them formidable foils, as he does here with Mary, who regularly tells him off. In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, aside from one brief moment everyone actually agreed with Brooks' character whenever he said something stupid. Modern Romance, the DVD of which has no extras, shows when Brooks knew how to do more than just make his character misguided. He knew how to make him funny, too.

For more information about Modern Romance, visit Sony Pictures. To order Modern Romance, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman